Don’t be fooled by packed courses – dark clouds are still gathering for golf clubs

It would be easy to get carried away with a membership boost and crammed tee sheets, but worrying signs are plainly evident

It’s still quite hard to get a tee time, isn’t it? A club, of which I’m a member, had 200 playing in a competition last week. If it’s not fastest fingers first when the booking sheet opens there’s the real chance the bag will be staying in the boot.

Golf has had some reasons to be smug as coronavirus has loosened its grip and society gradually begins to reopen.

With restrictions on other sports still widely in place, and ours a perfect vehicle for social distancing, we’ve experienced unprecedented demand and a sudden membership boom.

Booking service GolfNow saw a near 700% increase in sessions year-on-year as courses reopened in England last month, and clubs across the United Kingdom have been fast tracking membership applications for some much needed income. 

Rounds played in Great Britain soared in May, a survey from Sports Marketing Surveys recently revealed, and flexible membership companies have been almost triumphant about the numbers signing up. 

But look past those joyous headlines and an altogether more shadowy picture is emerging.

Golf club managers are starting to be made redundant in numbers as committees still reeling from the best part of two months without significant revenue streams consider cost-cutting measures.

I’ve had my run-ins with traditional private members’ institutions, and their governance structures, but there has still been a clear shift over the last three or four years towards streamlined boards and a general manager left to supervise the operation.

If clubs feel the industry expert is now surplus to requirements – before we even start to see what a coronavirus depression really looks like – then it seems clear some outlets are facing an uncertain future.

And what of those busy tee sheets I mentioned earlier? I wonder how many of these are filled by workers still furloughed as business seeks to get on any kind of even keel.

It pains me to write this but a moment of truth is coming soon for many people on that lifeline scheme.

From the start of August, companies will pay national insurance and pension contributions for furloughed staff. Firms will not be doing that for people they do not plan to keep.

What’s that got to do with golf? Over the next few months, there are very likely to be hundreds of thousands pitched into unemployment.

With the economic future uncertain at best, they are going to have to make hard choices about their income.

Leisure will be at the back of the queue. While fees may have been secured for this year, will that be the case in January or April when the renewals period comes round again? You couldn’t answer in the affirmative with any confidence.

In their report, How Covid-19 is Changing the UK Golfer, SMS revealed the virus has already significantly hit the pockets of players.

Nearly a third said they would have less disposable income to spend on golf in the future. A quarter expected to buy fewer golf products.

Membership is not cheap. It will be a tough ask to maintain what is essentially a frivolity for those suffering from scarcity of income.

Other clubs that ran into their 2020 renewals at the worst time – as the country was locked down and their doors were shut – offered discounts in a bid to entice loyalty.

Those 15 months for the price of 12, get a month free, or we’ll fund the interest deals will have to be paid for next year and may well leave some clubs short of cash when they need it most.

While food and beverage may not be a money-spinner for all clubs, what impact will continued social distancing have on revenue that doesn’t come from subscriptions?

Clubhouses can reopen soon and we can have a pint on the terrace in the sun. But as Professor Chris Whitty was so mindful to point out in the final Government coronavirus briefing, the restrictions we currently live with are going to be with us for the foreseeable – and this is a virus that appears to do better in cold weather and in compact spaces.

Packed buildings could be a non-starter for at least a year, if Whitty’s predictions are accurate. Will we be so glib when the snow’s on the ground and the outdoor options we’re about to enjoy don’t look quite so appetising?


All of this comes against the backdrop of two thirds of clubs surveyed already saying they fear for their future over the next 12 months.

So while we should absolutely enjoy the summer, we should also not be in any doubt. The dark clouds are gathering for club golf and, before this coronavirus crisis is over, I fear the landscape as we know it is going to be irrevocably altered.

We need to strap in for what is about to come.

How is your club coping with the coronavirus crisis? Let me know in the comments, or tweet me.

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Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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